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‘Mayor of Kingstown’: Jeremy Renner runs the show in a place where prison’s the town business

His ferocious performance anchors the highly pedigreed series from the co-creator of ‘Yellowstone.’

Jeremy Renner stars as Mike McClusky, who seems to know everyone in “The Mayor of Kingstown.”
Paramount+

“Every once in a while, it’s nice to remind them: they’re the prisoners, not us.” – Jeremy Renner’s Mike McClusky in “Mayor of Kingstown.”

To this day my favorite Jeremy Renner performance might have been his nomination-worthy supporting turn as the hardscrabble, hardcore criminal James “Jem” Coughlin in “The Town” — an ex-con who was plenty smart enough to make a living in the straight world but didn’t want to hear that noise because he was going to do things his way, even if it meant he was essentially on a lifelong suicide mission.

Renner’s Mike McClusky is like a slightly more sophisticated, more political, spiritual cousin to Jem Coughlin. Like Jem, he’s an ex-con who spends virtually every waking moment in the free world skirting or crossing lines that will get him thrown back in prison. And like Jem, he’s never leaving his hometown. Mike talks about it all the time, but he’s not headed anywhere. Where’s he gonna go?

Renner’s ferociously powerful performance is the best thing about “The Mayor of Kingstown,” a gritty, highly pedigreed, impressively photographed and well-acted series premiering Sunday on Paramount+. Reteaming with his “Wind River” writer-director Taylor Sheridan (“Yellowstone,” “Hell or High Water”), Renner leads an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Dianne Wiest, Taylor Handley, Emma Laird, Hugh Dillon (who co-created the series with Sheridan) and Aiden Gillen — the latter proving he can be just as chillingly manipulative and nefarious in the present-day Rust Belt as he was as Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones.”

Just as the “Mare of Easttown” isn’t really the mayor of Easttown, Mike McClusky isn’t the actual mayor of Kingstown, a fictional town in Michigan that is home to some seven prisons in a 10-mile radius, housing some 20,000 inmates and providing double that amount in jobs to the men and women who work in those facilities. But Mike sure as hell gets in the middle of things. Just about everyone in Kingstown is behind bars, was once behind bars, or has a job interacting with those who are behind bars — and as you can surmise, not all of those interactions are legal. And it just so happens Mike knows just about everybody.

Kyle Chandler’s Mitch McClusky, Mike’s brother, is a cheerfully corrupt, gladhanding type who handles negotiations involving the local police enforcement, prison guards, inmates, criminals still on the outside and the families of all of the above. Tooling around Kingstown in his enormous, vintage, four-door Cadillac, Mitch isn’t naïve about the inherent dangers of his work, but he seems to revel in it. Renner’s Mike is a much more conflicted, Shakespearean character who is probably better suited to be the town’s unofficial “mayor” than Mitch, but wishes he could rid himself of the blood, the mess, the nastiness, the very stench of corruption and rot permeating Kingstown.

Then there’s younger brother Kyle (Taylor Handley), a cop who is all too willing to go along when his big brothers come calling at the station and tell Kyle they need to go on a mission involving some remote woods, a bag of stolen cash and a shovel. And the great Dianne Wiest turns in her usual world-class work as the family matriarch, who teaches classes in the women’s prison and seems to be kindhearted — but if you say a word about her boys, she’ll cut you off and freeze you cold.

The McClusky boys’ mother Mariam (Dianne Wiest) puts forth a kindhearted exterior.
Paramount+

Kingstown is so messed up, Mitch’s best friend is probably the Crips boss known as Bunny (an outstanding Tobi Bamtefa), who conducts business from a lawn chair in front of an apartment building in the projects, his coolers filled with drugs. (There’s also Mitch’s uneasy alliance with Gillen’s Milo Sunter, a Russian mob leader serving a life sentence in Kingstown’s supermax prison—which doesn’t stop Milo from continuing to run things.)

With burnt blues and grays and browns saturating the visuals (it always feels like a storm is coming in Kingstown, even when it’s sunny), “Kingstown’ would be rated “R” as a theatrical release, given the nudity, drug use, language, violence and just about every other factor that goes into getting an “R.” It also has a cinematic vibe throughout, e.g., a perfectly edited sequence opening Episode 3, in which we see a montage of workout scenes — a little boy doing curls with a tiny dumbbell, hardcore inmates lifting heavy weights in the yard, female inmates jogging, cops working out, a local woman doing yoga — to the sounds of Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story:

Spent some time feeling inferior

Standing in front of my mirror

Combed my hair in a thousand ways

But I came out looking just the same

Daddy said, son, you better see the world

I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to leave

And then something happens — something indicative of the brutal and unforgiving nature of life in Kingstown, and I’ll leave it at that. There are times when it feels as if everyone stuck here, on either side of the wall, is trapped in Hell on Earth. We’re immediately immersed in watching the goings-on in place, and eternally grateful we don’t live there.